Insecurity, the Anthropocene & nature’s tipping points

Each February, leaders, policy-makers, thinkers and practitioners in the field of security, broadly defined, get together at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich for a three day international conference. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, Germany’s then Chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened her speech by reflecting on the world’s entry into a new geochronological age – the Anthropocene Epoch. 

She explained, “This means that we are living in an age in which humankind’s traces penetrate so deeply into the Earth that future generations will regard it as an entire age created by humans.” She briefly touched on different human impacts on the environment and then said, “All of this has implications for global security and for the issues that are being discussed right here, right now.”

Right here, right now, too right.

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The Great Acceleration

You know, it is easy to understand how it gets to be a drag, having to think about things in new and different ways.

If you have been working on international development over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War, in a government, or inter-governmental agencies, or non-governmental organisations, or switching among them, you will know what I mean. First there was development, then you had to add gender and human rights, then environment, and then conflict and peace. Wouldn’t it be great to get back to working just on development? And those folk over there could work on environment or gender or peace and conflict if they want and, you know, just get on with stuff.

Likewise, there are complaints and doubts within the humanitarian community about how their work is complicated by the people who want them to think about development and peace as well as simply meeting immediate human needs.

But watch out. As they say, people who are wise: be careful what you wish for.

In various governments among the traditional donors of international development assistance, things are beginning to unfold that could lead to a distinct narrowing of focus, leaving much of development and peace out of the picture and concentrating on meeting humanitarian emergencies.

This blog post is about one reason – an environmental reason – why that is deeply problematic, why it is essential to grasp the nettle and think about the full range of problems that confront peace and development today. Just one reason among several. The argument swings on the big changes in human impact on the environment that have unfolded since about 1950.

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Environment of Peace: the research report in full

In the last couple of months I have been writing and posting articles based on the material assembled for the policy report, Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk that SIPRI published in May and first launched at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Now, with not a little sigh of relief combined with a real sense of achievement, SIPRI has published the research on which the policy report is based.

It is published in four parts.

  • Part 1, which I had the honour of being the lead author for, is entitled ‘Elements of a Planetary Emergency’.
  • Part 2, led by Cedric de Coning, is ‘Security Risks of Environmental Crises’.
  • Part 3, led by Geoff Dabelko, is ‘Navigating a Just and Peaceful Transition’.
  • And Part 4, led by Melvis Ndiloseh and Hafsa Maalim, is ‘Enabling an Environment of Peace’.

It’s a pretty chunky read – 277 pages and, for those who like to keep count, 1648 endnotes with the supporting references. The five lead authors were backed by a team of about 30 researchers and guided by an international advisory panel.

At the close of 2022, perhaps some of us risk feeling overwhelmed. It is crisis, crisis, crisis all over the place: hunger, biodiversity, energy, economy, supply chains, mental health, security, migration, cost of living and climate. If we manage not to turn away from all of them, it is all too tempting to focus on one or two, either as the magic key for solving the whole lot, or because that’s all the mind can handle.

The uncomfortable fact is that these crises are connected and interacting. The aim of the Environment of Peace initiative that SIPRI set going in 2020 is to understand and explain how those interconnections work, and show how knowing about them can be turned to advantage as we find inter-connected solutions.

Probably the full research report is not everybody’s cup of green tea. But the policy report could be. I didn’t have a hand in writing it so I can contentedly say it is extremely well written and clearly presented and super-well worth the read. And for those who want to explore more deeply or check out the underlying evidence and analytical foundations, the full research report is there for you.

War and nature

War is not glorious. As we see this year in Ukraine, Ethiopia and almost 50 other continuing wars and armed conflicts, people are killed and, some of us, ordered to kill. People are maimed, terrified, forced into hiding and flight, and traumatised. Even without what are known as war crimes – such as torture, kidnapping, killing civilians whether close up or from long range – war is, as a US Civil War General said, hell.

And after the war? The effects of destruction are lasting because the natural environment is all too often another casualty of armed conflicts.

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The idea of security

2022: the year of insecurity – Ukraine, Taiwan, Ethiopia, happening against a background, as my last blog post set out, of record military spending, with refugee numbers already at a record high. It is tempting to think that this means we need to junk woolly thoughts about human security and suchlike and get back to old-style basics, in which security lies in a strong defence, in power, to be blunt, and more of it than any adversary has. It’s what is called realism in the study of international relations and the realist temptation today seems strong.

It is the direction in which the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the confrontation between China and the USA over Taiwan seem to be pushing us. A return to realism, hardening up NATO against Russia, though it’s worth acknowledging that the demand to get Western policy ‘back to realism’ is a long-standing idea . But why ever and whenever, it’s all about recognising that, if you get into trouble, only the exertion of power will get you out and that’s how it’s been for thousands of years.

Mm-hmm, except that 2022 is also the year of climate change: drought in China and Europe, floods in Pakistan, both in the Horn of Africa, unfolding in a context of several other aspects of serious environmental deterioration, as my last blog post also set out.

And since this means that the mix of challenges on today’s security horizon is not only complex and worrisome but also unprecedented, it suggests there is a need to think hard about what we mean by security – the security of whom or what, and against what – and, indeed, to be ready to rethink.

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Indicators of our current insecurity

Global insecurity today is shaped by the combination of an environmental crisis, in which climate change is prominent but by no means the only element, and a darkening security horizon. These twin crises are linked: each worsens the other so steps to address them can and should also be linked.

Nature and peace: damage one, damage the other; protect one, enhance the other.

To identify possible remedies for the global malady, we need to understand the intersection of problems and issues. But it may be useful to begin by looking at the components. After all, insecurity is not just one thing, nor is the environmental crisis. There are diverse indicators of each.

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Environment of Peace – an environment for progress

“I hope you are well.” A phrase that routinely starts each email now has special meaning. And not only in terms of physiological health but also psychological well being. And it’s not just the Covid-19 pandemic. Once you start thinking about it, where do you stop?

From toxic geopolitics to a many-sided environmental crisis (climate, biodiversity, ocean acidification, air pollution, zoonotic infection and more) to cyber vulnerability to capricious leaders who ignore facts, trash the truth and get away with it.

And yet…

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